The classic restorers. Stanley Mann

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One of the first people to specialise in selling, restoring and racing just one marque, Stanley Mann has seen the Bentley business change enormously. Gordon Cruickshank talks to him about Ckricklewood cars, and W. O. Bentley’s view of history

Only those who possess determination and a good map will find their way to the secluded rural base from where Stanley Mann runs his operation. With every junction the road diminishes until high hedges are brushing the door min-ors on both sides. One final turn into a narrow gate shows a dainty sign reading ‘The Fruit Farm’. No business name, no Bentley logo; like the best restaurants, this is one of those places to where the cognoscenti will find their way, no matter what.

You can’t be involved with old cars without knowing of Stanley Mann. Purveyor, restorer and racer of WO Bentleys for several decades, Mann has been at the centre of just about every British Bentley meet, racing either one of his own cars, something from his stock-in-trade, or a car belonging to one of his clients. Over the years his firm has handled a significant proportion of the world’s vintage Bentleys, either in sales, restoration or simple maintenance, and the boss is obviously still enraptured by them.

As we walk into the sales building to see the double line of Bentleys shimmering between elaborate cast-iron lamp standards, an operatic aria rolls out from the speakers. Stanley beams and flings his arms wide: “All this and Jussi Bjorling too!” He revels in being here, and in telling you the story of each car. For they all have histories, and Stanley knows them all. “That’s Eddie Hall’s Jarvis-bodied 3-litre; that 8-litre was rebodied in the 1960s, you wouldn’t do that to it now. Look at this 6.1/2 — I’ve built it twice so far.” By now some of these cars must regard The Fruit Farm as their home base between owners.

We work down the line to a handsome black 6.1/2-litre H J Mulliner saloon. This one has a superlight Weymann-pattern body whose fabric sides conceal nothing but air; there is no panelling between the timber framework, and as a result Stanley can pull his party trick. “Go on, guess how much it weighs.” It turns out to be no heavier than the Le Mans-style tourer alongside. “You can have a really fun day out in that; it’ll scare anything, even four up.” He just loves driving these cars on any possible occasion. He goes on: “I’ve already saved this one twice.” From what? “From being turned into another tourer.” This is a tender point in Bentley circles — the conversion of normally slow saloons into dramatic tourers, usually with Le Mans accoutrements. Fingers are often pointed at Stanley, and he has done his share, though frequently on instruction from owners. But there are other views: these cars are no longer for transport They are preserved only for the pleasure of driving, and, that HJM lightweight apart, a tourer will always be a lighter, quicker car. A saloon is dearer and harder to build; and of course he runs a business. He makes a point to me: “That car there I can probably sell as it stands for £140,000. But as a tourer I could get another £100,000 for it.” It says something for him that he has been known to sell a saloon with a contract preventing the new owner from removing the body.

The company stock is on display in a large metal building which, in a previous life, might have been a barn. Inside, though, are touches of luxury which don’t seem to have come from this down-to-earth man himself. That’s because this building used to have nothing to do with Mann. The cast-iron lamps and panelling date back to when this was the private car collection of Ed Hubbard, the mysterious individual who sold Old Number One Bentley and was taken to court by the purchasers, who disputed its originality. They famously lost and went bankrupt; Hubbard later disappeared, with Interpol on his tail.

In Hubbard’s time this building was decorated like a Parisian bordello, which Stanley showed me when he had just taken it over. Behind the blank metal doors, the sudden sight of gold-plated chandeliers and red flock wallpaper was a disconcerting surprise. Now it is more restrained, more suited to Bentleys, with steering wheels and radiators on the wall. It also liberates the whole of Mann’s workshop for restoration and maintenance. Here, as always, there are WO Bentleys in every stage of undress — the surprisingly slender frame of a 4.1/2-litre on trestles, an 8-litre crankcase looking more like a marine engine with its massive cam-drive tower, conrods like locomotive parts, a huge Le Mans fuel tank in a cradle on the floor. A pair of 4.1/2s loom alongside, and behind sit ‘the team’: the two Bentleys you’re most likely to see Stanley racing this season. On the right is ‘Mother Gun’, the famous Marker/Jackson special rescued by the late Vaughan Davis; on the left, ‘Monty’, the latest incarnation of a car which was an ugly two-seater in the 1960s, was raced by Victor Gauntlett in the ’70s and which Mann’s team rebuilt a few years ago into a 300bhp single-seater with 8-litre engine. With its slender body it looks like the early BamatoHassan, even though the chassis remains the standard width.

In between the two racers in their polished aluminium is a surprise: a Veritas Meteor which Stanley was preparing to race at the Monaco GP Historique. Even though it’s not from Cricklewood, he is just as enthusiastic about this East German novelty. “Very advanced for its time, you know. And it’s small, light, and it handles — not like a Bentley at all.”

Mann pours out details of the histories of all these cars without looking up any of it (even though he has himself published a second edition of Michael Hay’s ‘bible’ on the WO cars). The history has been in his blood since he was a small boy growing up near the site of the Cricklewood factory, and as soon as he beg-an to rebuild a Bentley for himself, it became, he says, “like a religion”. At that time the central figures in the Bentley story were still alive, and Mann made sure he met them — Walter Hassan, Billy Rockell and WO himself, who he recalls said “I can’t understand people still being interested”. And that was 30 years ago.

Soon it was obvious that the family meat business could not keep Mann from cars, and he started his own company, moving to Radlett some 15 years ago. One of the first one-make specialists, he was soon to become almost synonymous with the marque; at the same time he began racing, showing up as something of an oddity at a time when Bentleys were beginning to be locked away as they made the transition from old cars raced by eccentrics to valuable property. Often Stanley’s was the only Bentley on the tack, but gradually a new breed of owners became more confident about using their cars, until today no long-distance endurance event would be complete without a vintage Bentley.

Apart from the machinery, Stanley’s contribution has been Benjafield’s Racing Club, founded with like-minded owners — many, inevitably, Mann’s clients — to recreate the more casual and sociable world of prewar racing. Visit the Club’s chief event, the Combury Park sprint, and you might have drifted back decades. Nowadays Stanley is delighted that the age of his clients is dropping. ‘They all used to be 55; now many of them are 35. And whereas they all used to be engineers, now they might be city types who don’t want to tinker. They want bulletproof engines, and we’re good at those.” Not that this is in any way a bulk market. “The worldwide turnover in vintage Bentleys is probably only 40 or 50 a year; but we handle between 20 and 25 of those.”

Despite the spacious premises, there are only four permanent employees besides Stanley, although the firm regularly calls on 25-30 contactors for machining jobs and tasks like trimming. Not that they lack the skills: ‘Monty’ was built here mainly by Stewart Femside, and in 1998 Stanley won the Itala Trophy with it. Despite his extensive race record, he says he is not used to victory because, until the new breed of 8-litre specials arrived, a massive Bentley usually lost out to lighter competitors. “It was my first big win. I’ve never bothered to read about what you do on the slowing-down lap, so I nearly ran over the lady with the laurel wreath. We don’t win much, but you have to be out there doing it. The car is the challenge — can I stay on the track and keep up with the little cars?”

What he can say with some pride is that racing proves the quality of their work. “If it lasts on the track, it’ll be bomb-proof on the road. And all our cars are roadworthy, even the racers.” Sure enough, there are tax discs on ‘Mother Gun’ and ‘Monty’. “Takes about 15 minutes to put mudguards and silencers on ‘Monty’,” says Stewart, busy fabricating an exhaust bracket to make the job even quicker. Having done every possible job on every type of Bentley, and developed tweaks that give a vintage engine torque that would tear the clutch out of most modern stuff, the team is enjoying the new popularity of short-chassied, big-engined specials. While it is satisfying to sort out the mixture on a pair of SU sloper carbs, planning and building one of these heavyweight rockets is a creative outlet.

Behind the workshop are the stores where Bentley treasures are piled on shelves, from sidelights to wings and engines, surrounding a nicely restored Model A Ford van which says “Bentley Service Dept”on the door. “And,” says Stanley with glee, “the phone number is the number of the Cricklewood factory!” It’s just the sort of detail which delights a man in love with the marque.

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